About two years ago the R&A got in touch with some Dublin-based PR and advertising companies. They had a concern about the 2019 Open Championship that they wanted to throw some money at.
Not a major concern. Building two entirely new holes in Royal Portrush and anxiously watching how Brexit might affect their gargantuan logistical operation — these were more pressing matters at HQ.
But still, something to iron out.
The tender went a bit like this: Can you come up with a campaign to promote the Open down south? You see, we’re a bit worried tickets for Portrush will go on sale and a big portion of the potential market will look on this Open as being for ‘them up there’ and not really for ‘us down here’. Can you engage with them? Bring them in? Make them feel this is their Open too?
They needn’t have worried. The Irish Opens at Portrush and Royal County Down remain the two best attended in the tournament’s history, so the arrival of the big one would be a slam dunk. As it happened, tickets for this week sold out within months, the first Open Championship ever to do so.
Irish golf fans will turn up wherever a decent tournament is held. Put the Irish Open on Tory Island and the choppy north Atlantic waters would be chock-a-block with trawler-loads of people in Callaway wind-cheaters. The R&A say 74% of tickets were sold on the island of Ireland; even allowing for the massive local enthusiasm, one presumes a large portion will be crossing the border.
But that needling concern of St Andrews top brass raises a question.
Have we in the south fully bought into what is arguably the biggest sporting event ever to take place on this island? Is it for ‘them up there’ and not really for ‘us down here’? Whose Open is this anyway?
This is old territory, of course. It comes up all the time. Why wasn’t Carl Frampton as popular in the south as he was in the North? Rory McIlroy, yay or nay? Why do they put that dreadful comedy show on before Graham Norton? It’s different up there, we know that.
More seriously, there has been a sense that, after everything, this is their moment to shine.
It has been profoundly moving to chart how this tournament came about. To hear about the journey from the low of the Troubles — when Portrush fell victim to the general reality thatno-one in their right mind would come to Northern Ireland unless they really had to, especially not an event on the scale of the Open — to today, when the best golfers in world will battle it out in front an audience of millions.
To realise this was the Good Friday Agreement ‘peace dividend’ made real; how the years of delicate stability and hard-won co-operation had reshaped the landscape of Northern Ireland in a way far more significant than even the monumental dune-shifting required at the Dunluce links.
How Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, and then-enterprise minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster stood in Portrush watching Darren Clarke’s 2011 Open title homecoming, and listened to all and sundry tell them it was time this place was put back where it belonged, and how they nodded and resolved that this would be exactly the sort of thing that would say to the world Northern Ireland was at peace, thriving and open for business.
To remember how they knocked it out of the park with the Irish Open, then moved mountains, literally and figuratively, to win the favour of the R&A, making that hardly daredevil body comfortable with its break from the old routine.
There is, after all that, a temptation to step back and let them have their moment in the sun (or the driving horizontal rain, as the case may be).
But this is an Open Championship we can all feel a part of.
Naturally, there’s the fact peace in Northern Ireland came about as a result of an all-island settlement. What does that mean?
Take something like Tourism Ireland, a body set up after the Agreement to promote the whole island to overseas visitors.
Ireland was marketed as a golf destination in a unified way as a result; travel journalists and industry professionals were brought to Portrush as part of the job of putting the place back on the map, but also to fit the North into Ireland’s superb overall golf offering.
Little nudges along the way. Like the conversation European Tour chief executive George O’Grady had with Enda Kenny at the 2011 Irish Open in Killarney.
“When we got down to the question of the [Irish Open] going North,” O’Grady would later say, “it was clear that it would be his decision as to when that came about.” Kenny gave his blessing, 2012 in Portrush went ahead, and the rest is history.
The nuts and bolts of it. The Golf Union of Ireland is an all-island body. GUI representative teams and competitions skip around the island’s magnificent golfing tapestry without a thought for lines on a map or religious affiliation.
Its youth development programmes helped McIlroy, Clarke, and McDowell as well as Harrington and Lowry, all of them part of the compelling argument that won over the R&A.
Seamus Heaney once said his vision of shared identity in his home country could be described as ‘through-otherness’, an Ulster expression sometimes defined as ‘a comfortable state of untidiness’ (it might be a translation of the Irish term ‘trí-na-chéile’).
This Open Championship is a glorious example of that, especially at a time when the old divisions are in danger of flaring up, with men of violence crawling out from under their rocks, bonfires of hate raging again, and Brexit’s reckless uncertainties.
The 2019 Open Championship is a big bit ‘them up there’, and a little bit ‘us down here’, but it wouldn’t be possible without all of us mixing along, like an agreeable four-ball duffing it up and down some glorious, windswept Irish links.